Why leave your church?

by K.W. Leslie, 25 February

Sometimes for good reasons. Sometimes bad. Up to you to decide.

As I’ve said previously, at some point Christians have to switch churches. Sometimes for good reasons; sometimes not.

  • God instructs you to go elsewhere.
  • They kicked you out.
  • Church leaders are untrustworthy. Sinning, abusive, fruitless, jerk-like, and unrepentant; or just not doing their jobs.
  • Ditto church members—and the leaders do nothing about it.
  • They’re a cult, or have a cultic reputation. Too legalistic, demanding, judgmental. If you don’t obey/conform, they have penalties.
  • They’re dark Christians: Too much fear and worry, not enough love.
  • You, or they, are moving to a new city. Or you work for another church.
  • Your spouse goes elsewhere, and isn’t coming back. Period.
  • You consider church to be optional anyway. Sleep, sports, or recreation—even doing nothing—seem better options.
  • They’re not cool enough. Or anymore.
  • You don’t like anyone there. You have no friends there. You burned a lot of bridges, so you need a “fresh start.”
  • They won’t let you lead, or otherwise get your way.
  • They’re not political enough.
  • They want you to contribute time/resources/money.
  • They denounce sin, particularly sins you commit.
  • There’s a drastic change in mission, emphasis, focus, or denomination—and you can’t get behind it.
  • You visited another church, and they felt far more right for you.
  • You don’t like their liturgical style, preaching style, or music.
  • You’re “not getting fed” or “not feeling the Spirit” or are otherwise bored.
  • Your kids don’t wanna go.
  • You want a bigger/smaller church.
  • You want more/fewer programs or resources.

You can probably think of more reasons than these. I sure can.

You might take issue with the placement of some of these things on the chart. I’ve known more than one politically-minded Christian who’s insistent the church must swing their way politically, and if it doesn’t, it’s supporting “the kingdom of this world” over and against “the kingdom of God.” Supposedly Jesus will make their party an exception when he overthrows the governments of this world. But political Christians regularly, naïvely think so, and would place politics in the “good reasons” column. I don’t.

Likewise I’ve known Christians who insist stylistic choices don’t matter in the slightest. Doesn’t matter if you hate the music, or think the sermons are useless and boring, or the kids can’t stand the youth group and would rather be pagans: That’s your church, and you stay there no matter what. For some Christians there are no debatable reasons. You don’t like your church? You don’t have to like it, you whiny muffin; you have to obey and conform. Suck it up and go to church.

Likewise I’ve known Christians who don’t want us making any such lists. Who are we to critique churches? We’re supposed to be humble, obedient, and stick with the churches God’s assigned us, rather than nitpicking their flaws, and seeking a church which suits our preferences instead of God’s. That’s just rebellion disguised as diversity.

The parish church model.

Those who object to church-shopping tend to quote C.S. Lewis on the subject. In The Screwtape Letters he wrote of a senior devil advising a junior tempter about how it’d help destroy a new Christian by making him a “connoisseur of churches” rather than a regular at any one of them.

…the search for a “suitable” church makes the man a critic where the Enemy [i.e. Jesus] wants him to be a pupil. What he wants of the layman in church is an attitude which may, indeed, be critical in the sense of rejecting what is false or unhelpful, but which is wholly uncritical in the sense that it does not appraise—does not waste time in thinking about what it rejects, but lays itself open in uncommenting, humble receptivity to any nourishment that is going. (You see how groveling, how unspiritual, how irredeemably vulgar he is!) This attitude, especially during sermons, creates the condition (most hostile to our whole policy) in which platitudes can become really audible to a human soul. There is hardly any sermon, or any book, which may not be dangerous to us if it is received in this temper. So pray to bestir yourself and send this fool the round of the neighboring churches as soon as possible. Your record up to date has not given us much satisfaction.

The Screwtape Letters, #16

Supposedly the Christian mind is so desperate for spiritual nourishment, any sermon, even a cliché-filled bit of fluff, will touch their souls and fight the devil. So “I’m not getting fed” isn’t enough of a reason to go church-shopping, and every Christian should stay right where they are.

This is what I’ve heard various Christians claim. They got the idea from Lewis. The problem is they’ve not understood Lewis’s context.

C.S. Lewis was a member of the Church of England, a denomination which works on the parish model. The CE divides the whole of England into parishes, or districts, and places a church and a pastor in each of them. You live in one of those parishes. Its church is therefore your church: Like your post office, like your polling place, like your high school, that’s just where you go. Anglican churches round the world do likewise, as do many other denominations.

Some of it is because the United Kingdom has no separation of church and state: The Church of England is a civic organization as well, and helps the government keep tabs on baptisms and weddings and the needs of the community. And some of it is for more Christian reasons: Christians really oughta worship with our neighbors. Not our hypothetical neighbors, the strangers whom we “love” by not prejudging them and thinking pleasant thoughts about them: Our literal neighbors, who live down the street, whom we oughta get along with for the sake of our common Lord. Loving the people we’re stuck with is much harder than loving the people we choose to be with. (Makes it all the easier for kids to leave their parents and bond with their spouses.) Dodging the local church means we’re kinda dodging our duties to our local sisters and brothers in Christ.

I get the reasoning behind the parish model. It makes good sense. But most churches don’t use it, and even parish churches don’t enforce it: If people really wanna go to the church the next parish over, church leaders won’t stop them. ’Cause the usual alternative is these people don’t go to church at all. Better they go to the next nearest church than none.

So while Lewis’s view makes sense when you’re a member of the Church of England (and English), it really doesn’t for your average Protestant. And in the hands of someone who’s trying to force people to stay in an unhealthy church, ordering them to stay where they are is downright devilish.

Debatable reasons.

I sorted the reasons—good, bad, and debatable—into their categories based on a pretty predictable metric.

  • Good reasons: Logistics (it’s difficult to get there and worship together), or your church is sinning.
  • Bad reasons: You’re sinning.
  • Debatable reasons: Bad fit. Not because you or they are doing anything wrong—and the reason it’s debatable is because you or they might be doing something wrong. Figure it out, and repent where necessary. But sometimes we don’t fit in our churches, and rather than fight to conform, we oughta go somewhere that’s a better fit.

Most people switch churches over those debatable reasons.

And because we’re so often incorrectly taught we should only switch churches for good reasons—namely ’cause the church is sinful—far too often people try to defend their church switches by claiming their previous church actually is sinful. “Oh, we don’t go to Ninth Presbyterian anymore because they teach heresy” sounds far more justifiable than the actual reason, “The music pastor plays nothing but choruses from the 1980s and we were so sick of them.” Since they figure leaving a church over the music sounds ridiculous—and it’s really not!—they scoured the sermons for anything which sounded kinda iffy to them, and used it as their excuse to vamoose. They’ve been slandering Ninth Presbyterian ever since.

But leaving a church over its music is a debatable issue. And, I argue, a valid one. Worship music is meant to do the following:

  • Praise God.
  • Get people in a joyful mood about God.
  • Declare (and in so doing, teach) truths about God.

If I hate the music, it’ll be a struggle to praise God with it, or get in any sort of good mood. And speaking for myself, a lot of the reason I dislike certain songs is because they’re so much fluff; they declare very little about God. Inflict this on me for a month, and I’ll start church-shopping. (Throw in a nagging music pastor who regularly interrupts to shout, “I can’t hear you! Sing louder!” and it won’t even take a month.)

Debatable reasons might be the product of sin: Mine, or the church’s. I might be one of those control freaks who demand they sing more hymns. Or the leaders might be those control freaks who sing nothing but hymns. But when nobody’s sinning, when it’s just a bad fit, I don’t see any reason why people should have to stay and put up with practices which irritate them, and distract ’em away from worship. Yeah, if God orders them to stay there and get over themselves, that’s one thing, but he doesn’t always; in fact it’s often him using these little irritants, ’cause we’re not really listening. And if these Christians leave for a different Christian church, I don’t see the problem. I do when they start bad-mouthing their last church; I don’t otherwise.

I know plenty of pastors have objected to the idea of leaving a church for any reasons but good ones. And I understand why: They, more than most of the people in a church, are trying to establish a relationship with the people in their churches. So it hurts when they’ve put in a bunch of time and effort into getting to know these people… only to see them quit because their kids’ friends get candy in their Sunday school, so the kids wanna go there instead. Or because their music pastor plays all the latest K-LOVE hits. Or their pastor quotes the King James Version instead of the New Living Translation, and they want “a preacher who respects the real bible.” Or their church’s youth group has a yearly Disneyland trip. Or other such trivial and goofy things. How can you break up a relationship over such minutia?

Largely the pastors aren’t wrong. We should build relationships with the people in our churches. These relationships should trump all the minor irritations which make us think about bouncing to a different church. It’s just sometimes they don’t. The problems are just that bothersome, and aren’t getting any better. And our lifetime commitment is to Christ and his universal church of all believers, not his individual churches. So people switch churches. Sometimes it sucks… and sometimes it’s a reason to rejoice, ’cause those people were such a pain. God help their next church.